It's almost noon at Sarah Alsup's house, time for her to go to work.
She's due soon at Mockingbird Cupcakes, the west Omaha bakery she opened earlier this month with her twin sister, Rachael Henderson. Alsup puts on her coat, knowing what comes next.
“Mom,” cries her youngest son, Christopher, clinging to her, tears running down his face. “I don't want you to leave, just don't leave.” Alsup hugs and kisses her boy before handing him off to her mother, Cathy Brodersen, who tries to distract him by talking about what they'll have for lunch.
The guilt over leaving her children tears at her after years as a stay-at-home mother to five boys ages 12 to 3.
It feels selfish for her to admit it, but Alsup, who has a degree in elementary education but never worked full time as a teacher, wants more from life. Appreciation. Validation. A paycheck.
So does her twin sister, who lives next door, raising her own children, two girls, 4 and 2, and a 5-month-old boy who just learned to roll over. Henderson earned a law degree at Creighton University but never practiced; she faced infertility and breast cancer before adopting three children.
“I love being a stay-at-home mom,” Henderson said, “but there's this yearning to let the world see what I can do.”
There are few women's issues more hotly debated today than the search for “work-life balance” — that elusive equilibrium where happy home and successful career work in harmony.
Every few months another female executive, academic or political leader rekindles the debate with a new article or book about how to define this balance, who can achieve it, what companies can do to nurture it, and whether it even exists.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” aims to inspire women and give them confidence to advocate for themselves on the way to the top. Sandberg argues women's progress has stalled when it comes to making gains as corporate executives and on corporate boards. Critics say the book ignores the need for more workplace flexibility for women and men alike, and ignores the plight of women who work because they have to, not because they dream of an executive suite.
Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former U.S. State Department director of policy planning, argued in a 2012 essay in the Atlantic that women who aren't wealthy or self-employed “still can't have it all” given the way the American economy and society are structured, with a culture that still values long hours of face time in the office.
The perceived need for workplace flexibility is one reason Yahoo employees and observers were stunned when CEO Marissa Mayer this year ended a company policy that allowed employees to work from home.
Amid the national debate, local female executives wrestle with these same issues.
The Women's Fund of Omaha in 2012 interviewed 47 local female business owners and executives about the strategies they employ to manage both work and home responsibilities.
The women said they put limits on children's activities and their own volunteering. They rise before the sun to squeeze in exercise and laundry. They rely on hired help for both child care and housework, and they rely on their husbands to be involved in parenting and household management.
They schedule everything. And they let go of the idea of achieving perfection in every aspect of their lives.
In the Fund's networking circles, juggling family and career is a common concern among younger women starting out. They'll ask experienced women how they find work-life balance. The experienced executives will often admit, “The thing is, there's really no such thing,” Fund executive director Michelle Zych said.
“There are always going to be trade-offs,” she said. “A lot of women talk about, with housework especially, don't sweat the small stuff. Sometimes the dishes aren't going to get done and it's not the end of the world.”
Zych said the women surveyed give a lot of credit to their husbands for their supportive roles, and often say, despite their professional success, that their biggest success is raising children.
In their own way, Henderson and Alsup are seeking their version of work-life balance. Side by side, this crew of two sisters, two husbands, eight children and one busy grandma are figuring out how to navigate what Brodersen calls their “helter-skelter” life.
They're actually at the shop together only a short time. Around noon, they'll go over inventory, check in with staff and tally up bills due before Henderson, who's been there since 4 a.m., will head home and Alsup will take over until the shop's 7 p.m. closing time.
The thread that seems to keep it all stitched together is the importance they place on family. Family photos spanning the generations are everywhere in their homes. And some of the same photos are on a bookshelf in their shop: their parents, young and laughing; brother Carl, handsome in his tuxedo for prom.
“Family is everything,” Alsup says, “so without it, what's the point?”
Sandberg may be leaning in, but “we're just leaning on each other,” Brodersen says.
The sisters have been leaning more on their mother, who has an apartment in Alsup's basement, and on their 24-year-old sister, Emily, who helps out in their homes with child care, and on their husbands.
Brodersen, 65, waited until her children were in high school to earn a college degree and become a nurse. Now retired, and long divorced from the sisters' father, she's happy to have downsized her home and moved in with Alsup.
Like a second mom, her daughter says, Brodersen makes meals, folds laundry, shuttles the children to school and activities.
“I'm needed,” Brodersen said.
The sisters' husbands, Mike Alsup, 38, a pilot for Kiewit, and Steve Henderson, 39, a construction manager for Chipotle restaurants, already were involved fathers, but have picked up more of the parenting and household duties since the sisters started their business.
“She's never worked before, so I have to be a little more tuned in,” Mike Alsup said.
On the day of the grand opening, when Sarah Alsup needed to be at the shop all day and her husband had to take some of the boys to activities, their eldest, Joseph, 12, was left for the first time at home in charge of Christopher, 3.
“Everyone's stepping up,” Mike Alsup said. He travels four days at a time for his job, but when he's home, he's taken on new tasks like printing out a family calendar with the “week at a glance” of where everyone needs to be.
He sees that his wife struggles with being away from the children, but also that she loves being a business owner.
Alsup said her husband told her, “Honestly, I'm jealous, because it looks like you're having a lot of fun, and I want to be part of it. But, I guess I am part of it,” by helping to make the shop possible.
The sisters' father has noticed how marriage roles have changed with the generations.
“I admire my two son-in-laws for their support,” said Roger Brodersen, an Omaha business executive and investor. “I don't know if I would have been as supportive of something that was so disruptive of the household.”
For Steve Henderson, who works from a home office when he's not traveling for Chipotle, the lines between work and home were already blurred. He said his role is not unusual among his peers.
“Everybody works from home,” he said, adding it's common for him to be making breakfast for his daughters while taking a business call with another male construction manager who also is home making breakfast for his family.
Last Friday, the day his wife had been at the Lakeside Plaza shop since 4 a.m., Henderson got up with her, worked in his office until his children woke up, fed the baby, made eggs for the girls, then moved his laptop, phone and construction plans up to the kitchen table.
From there he could answer emails and make calls while baby Henry napped in his swing and the girls played with dolls and watched “Bubble Guppies” on TV.
Henderson and Alsup don't know what this balance will look like in a few months when they get into more of a routine in their business. They don't know what it will look like in a few years when all their children are in school, or down the road when their children are grown.
They do believe that if they are successful, it will be worth it.
Henderson sometimes feels sad, waking up in the middle of the night and leaving her house in the dark to get to the bakery at 4 a.m., her sleeping children still tucked in their warm beds.
“And in the car, on the way here,” she says, “I start to get excited.”
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